Wildfires and prescribed fires are common occurrences in the heath vegetation that is home to many species of Australian honeyeater birds. Flowering heath plants produce nectar and pollen that provide an important food resource for honeyeaters, but although fire is known to drastically alter habitat characteristics, little is known about how honeyeater communities change through time after fire in montane heath.

In this study, university honours student Michael Franklin, and his supervisors, Charlie Morris from the University of Western Sydney and I, examined seasonal relationships between time since fire and the abundance and diversity of the honeyeater community in Blue Mountains Heath.

We surveyed honeyeaters in 12 sites ranging from 2 to 39 years since fire in both cool and warm seasons. In the warm season, the abundance of all honeyeaters, and particularly the New Holland Honeyeater increased steadily with time since fire, before reaching a plateau 10 years after fire. In the cool season, New Holland Honeyeater abundance continued to increase with time since fire right across the range from 2 to 39 years following fire.

Our study showed that honeyeaters used heath across a broad range of post-fire intervals greater than 10 years, in contrast to the commonly-held view that heathland requires frequent burning to remain attractive to animals.

Frequent fires, i.e. those that occur more frequently than every 10 years, are likely to deplete the nectar resource for honeyeaters because of the time it takes for plants to grow to a stage where they flower prolifically.

Our research has contributed to the understanding of the links between fire ecology and use of habitat by birds, which in turn provides a scientific basis for ecologically sustainable fire management of natural areas.

Richard Major
Principal Research Scientist

More information:
Franklin, M.J.M., Charles, M.C., Major, R.E., 2013. Relationships between time since fire and honeyeater abundance in montane heathland. Emu. In Press.